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To Address the Homelessness Crisis, Experts Say Think Big, Collaborate, and Use an Equity Lens

By Amy Guterman July 22, 2020

Around the world, homeless service providers and governments are facing unprecedented challenges to support the safety of people experiencing homelessness and those serving them on the frontlines.

The questions and challenges are vast: How do you support vulnerable populations who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19? How do you keep staff healthy while they provide critical care? How do you equitably allocate limited housing as demand surges? How do you shelter-in-place if you don’t have shelter?

In our first Impact Lab, 19 Community Fellows who are subject matter experts in the field of affordable housing and homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area are designing a technology solution to make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to access services and the support they need.

While we pivoted the first Impact Lab to a virtual experience, the Community Fellows were also tackling new challenges to support their communities during the pandemic. We asked four Community Fellows how they’re taking on new challenges, supporting their communities, and rebuilding for the next normal.

Amanda Wehrman, Homebase:
Harness Collaboration and Centralize Resources

System and program leadership are being called upon for rapid responses to a novel, swiftly changing emergency. As we work to deploy effective responses to protect clients and staff, there is an urgent and ongoing need to share evolving resources and information.

In early March, Homebase began facilitating regional coordination calls across the Bay Area, Northern California, and the Central Valley to bring together homeless systems of care to share local policies and strategies. These weekly calls provide crucial infrastructure for communities and partners to collaboratively problem solve, share information, and offer lessons learned.

We also created a centralized online resource hub to share resources across jurisdictions. This centralized hub ensures system and provider partners don’t have to reinvent the wheel and can focus on deploying resources where most needed. The Impact Labs team has been very thoughtful in designing a process to collaborate virtually. We’ve taken a lot of the great tools we’ve seen used in Impact Labs and adapted them to our own collaborative work.

The Homebase resource hub provides memos, guides, and curated resources to help other organizations respond to new challenges presented by COVID-19.

While these last months have been a challenge, this is a time to think big about how we want to rebuild. We must ensure that the disruption of COVID-19 translates into a new normal with homelessness centered as an urgent and untenable public health crisis. This an opportunity to overcome many historical barriers that have held us back from being the collectively prosperous, equitable society we should be.

As we all look to emerge from this crisis stronger, we must ensure that the disruption of COVID-19 translates into a new normal with homelessness centered as an urgent and untenable public health crisis. 

Darice Ingram, California State University, East Bay:
Put Students’ Needs First

As the pandemic hit, we had to think quickly about how to support students who were most vulnerable. With students facing new public health and economic challenges, our emergency assistance requests went up 1,600%. 

In order to respond to this surge in demand, we were honored to receive CARES dollars to help support students. We were able to expand our emergency assistance program, and update our aid and emergency housing, to support students that were homeless. We expanded our emergency housing for several students, allowing them to be socially distant to ensure that they would not lose housing as we were responding to safety concerns around COVID-19.

Cal State East Bay students who are remaining on campus distribute fruit as part of the emergency assistance program. Courtesy of Darice Ingram.

Because we have infrastructure in place and a team that works together regularly on basic needs issues–food, housing, clothing, and securities–we were able to use that team and work very closely with their financial aid team and our vice president of student affairs to make sure that as many students as possible receive some emergency funds. We worked with our donor department to help donors understand the issues that students were facing and respond to the increased need.

Through these past few months, we have really seen the value of collaboration and resource sharing. The California State University system has over 400,000 thousand students, staff, and faculty. Our chancellor’s office was tremendous and helped connect those who are doing this type of work. We met on a regular basis to learn from each other and we all created resource lists to help share our learnings and best practices. Through working with the other Impact Labs Community Fellows, I learned about housing and homelessness resources that I was unaware of before. Collaboration really is key to navigating uncharted waters.

Joshua Bamberger, MD, MPH, Family and Community Medicine: Use the Crisis as an Opportunity to Build a Better Normal

Beginning in April, there were a number of identified COVID-19 cases that initiated decompression of the shelters moving people experiencing homelessness into temporary tourist hotels. I took on a role leading a team of clinicians providing primary care and COVID-19 screening for people who moved from the street into hotels. Throughout this time, the information we had about the basic vulnerability and clinical conditions of the people we were screening or serving was limited. 

An excellent Salesforce solution was built to help us track who we screened alerting medical professionals to those who may have COVID-19 before entering the shelters. However, excellent technology solutions alone are not enough. We don’t have adequate systems in place to systematically assess the clinical conditions and prioritize who will go into a limited number of permanent housing units. Who gets prioritized into temporary hotels continues to be mostly driven by politics rather than primarily driven by individual needs. 

Since many of the people we are serving in hotels have not been indoors for years, many have had little clinical care for their baseline chronic medical conditions. This has been a great opportunity to improve the delivery of care to these individuals and try to engage them in longitudinal care within the mainstream health delivery system. 

Despite having moved more than 2,000 people from shelters and streets into temporary housing, many people remain in shelters and on the street.

The future looks bleak as we close down the surge of temporary housing with little revenue to expand permanent housing or provide a new, less dense shelter delivery system. Using this crisis as an opportunity to better assess the needs of the people in the hotels may provide us with some ability moving forward to best prioritize the limited permanent housing we will have available in the future.

An RV park in the Bayview area of San Francisco was set up through state funding for people impacted by COVID and provides housing for 120 families. Courtesy of Joshua Bamberger.

Tiffany Eng, Grounded Solutions Network:
Reprioritize and Use an Equity Lens

With lessons learned from America’s previous economic recession, housing counselors are the first responders for affordable housing case management, foreclosure and eviction prevention, forbearance coordination, and housing recovery.  As the shelter-in-place orders were announced, our HomeKeeper team moved quickly to support program staff in our network as they transitioned to remote service delivery. We also encouraged homeownership and housing counseling organizations to make plans to segment their data in a way that allows them to report on the impact of COVID-19. Using the Salesforce platform, organizations can easily customize their data collection related to the COVID crisis and monitor their response in real time.

We worked on reprioritizing our work to develop a strategic sector-wide approach, scaling impact in the context of the ensuing economic downturn. We also engaged with sector partners to support advocacy and sector-wide coordination in response to the federal stimulus packages.

The pandemic also brought to light the deep racial inequities that persist and set a very real context for our work supporting the creation of more housing with lasting affordability. The wide reaching impact of COVID-19 has shown it’s far more than just a public health crisis. The housing counselors we work with have already seen demand for their services increase as the related housing crisis worsens. As pandemic-and-protest-related impacts to families, neighborhoods, and communities across the nation continue to evolve, so too must tangible actions to ensure housing stability for the already-vulnerable renters and homeowners of color.

As an organization, we have spent the last four years engaging in a process of reflection, learning, and action that has shaped our shared values on race, equity, and inclusion. The past few months have shown it’s more important than ever for nonprofits to invest in this work in order to address the structural health and housing disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. 

Interested in learning about the Impact Labs Community Fellows? Check out this blog post, and stay tuned for more on Impact Labs’ solution that will be announced this fall. 

About the Community Fellows Featured:

Amanda Wehrman has over eight years of experience building community capacity to prevent and end homelessness. She works directly with communities and agencies, providing technical assistance and training on a wide variety of issues including coordinated entry, grants management, program design and implementation, system-level evaluation, strategic planning, Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) implementation, Continuum of Care (CoC) governance, and development of performance measurements. She has helped plan and coordinate meetings and trainings sessions bringing together diverse attendees, has conducted consumer focus groups and stakeholder interviews, and has developed a wide range of materials to support best practice program design and operation. She has significant expertise facilitating system redesign and integration, including with behavioral health programs, between housing and health care systems, and across the Bay Area region’s CoCs. Amanda also provides day-to-day management and cross-team support and coordination for Homebase’s project teams.

Darice Ingram is the Pioneers for H.O.P.E. Basic Needs Program Coordinator at Cal State East Bay. Her belief is that food and housing are basic human rights. At East Bay she is responsible for the on-campus food pantries, CalFresh initiatives and Emergency Housing programs. An alum of Cal State East Bay, her passion is helping and supporting students. As the co-founder of a college access and persistence non-profit, she’s worked with school districts and colleges around the country. A firm believer that education is a key out of oppression – she’s dedicated over 11 years to helping students navigate college. Homelessness for college students is a horrific epidemic and she is committed to raising solutions that effectively end this problem for students. As a mother of 3 adult children, and grandmother to a spicy 2-year old – this work to her is personal.

Joshua Bamberger, MD, MPH led the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s housing and health system of care from 1991 to 2018.  During his time with DPH, Dr. Bamberger coordinated all medical and behavioral health services at the health department’s supportive housing programs. From August 2012 to January 2013, he was a Special Advisor to the Executive Director of the United States Interagency on Homelessness, the Federal government’s homeless policy agency.  From 2013 to 2019, Dr. Bamberger was the Chief Medical Consultant for Mercy Housing.  Presently, Dr. Bamberger is a primary care physician at the Downtown VA health clinic.  In July 2019, Dr. Bamberger joined UCSF as Professor of Family and Community Medicine and as the Associate Director of the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.  Dr. Bamberger has been practicing family medicine with people living with poverty since 1989.

Tiffany Eng is the HomeKeeper Director at Grounded Solutions Network. Since 2010, she has been overseeing product development, marketing and support for HomeKeeper and the HomeKeeper National  Data Hub. HomeKeeper is a HUD-approved client management system built by and for affordable homeownership practitioners and housing counseling agencies.  Tiffany has over 20 years of experience in the community development and affordable housing sector and has worked at the local and national level. In addition, she has been a licensed California REALTOR since 2007 and is a passionate advocate for first-time homebuyers and equitable, family-friendly cities.